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Date: 8/9/2018

Head Coach of the Republic of Korea women’s under 18 team Seong Ok Oh holds one of the most impressive records in handball in either the men’s or women’s game, having appeared in five-straight Olympic Games from 1992 up to 2008 and hauling in a total of four medals.

Imagine staying at the most elite of elite sporting levels for 16 years - Oh did, and it resulted in a gold medal at Barcelona 1992, followed by silver at Atlanta 1996, a fourth-placed finish at Sydney 2000, another silver, at Athens 2004 and, finally, bronze at Beijing 2008.

In Kielce, she spoke to IHF.info about what has changed since she was playing, her aims for Poland 2018 and bringing through the next generation of players – and coaches.

Korea already have one foot in the eighth-finals of Poland 2018 thanks to two wins out of two in preliminary group D, against Tunisia 45:27 (27:11) and Kazakhstan 39:24 (20:6), but that does not tell the true story of how Oh and her Korean side have approached the preliminary round in Kielce.

In fact, the story is one of two tournaments in the preliminary group and of two complete squads within the 16 players and coaching staff representing the Asian nation.

As with any youth championship, coaches always have the difficult decisions to make between developing players and winning at all costs, but for Oh and Korea it was clear that an opportunity had arisen when the match schedule came out as they faced two teams they were expected to beat – particularly their continental rivals Kazakhstan, who they defeated by 33 goals (49:16) less than a year ago at the AHF Asian Youth Championships.

Oh and her coaching staff decided to start both games with mainly the full-strength, more experienced players in her squad – Dahee Yeo, Minkyoung Son, Sumin Kim, Yedam Oh, Soyoun Park with left-sided players Yejin Yun and Jihyun Kim interchanging, while 16-year-old left back Bitna Woo was the exciting exception.

In the second half of both games Oh sat down on the bench, allowing her assistant, Jin Soon Kim to run the second period with mainly younger and less experienced players including Gyeongbin Choi, Yuhee Jeong, Minji Lee, Hyunhui Jeong, Soojeong Park, Eubeen Jo, Daeun Lee and Hagyeong Kim.

The ‘results’ of each half bore out the differences as even though Korea won all four 30-minute periods, against Tunisia, the first half ended 27:11 and the second, 18:16, while against Kazakhstan the contrast was starker: a 20:6 first period lead, followed by a 19:18 ‘victory’ in the second period, thanks to a 5:1 run in Korea’s favour in the final five minutes.

“Our first two preliminary games we used to practise a lot,” said Oh to IHF.info. “Before the tournament we separated all our players and the plan [for these two games] was to put our best players in for the first half and our younger players in for the second half so, maybe, that has been the differences between the first and second halves of our matches so far.

“I wanted all the players to experience some time on the court and no matter who we play,” she continued. “The opposition could be weaker or stronger [than us] but I want to see my players doing their best, like us as coaches - we all are doing our best for every match.

“For example, we did not play any different against Kazakhstan than we did one year ago – whether it is today or tomorrow the players on court are always doing their best work.  All of our players are in a very good physical condition and we are playing in our matches at a very quick pace as we had planned so that is very good, but now we start our most important matches.”

These “important” matches start with Montenegro tomorrow (10 August), then Spain (11 August) and France (13 August) in what could be a title decider in the group. Wins in these games will ensure that Korea can continue their planned journey to the podium and obtain a gold medal at this level after grabbing silver in 2006 and bronze in 2016.

“We want to get the gold medal,” said Oh, who attended the first ‘IHF National Teams Coaches Course for National Coaches’ in Asia, in conjunction with the Japanese Handball Association (JHA), back in March. “But it will be difficult for us; as I said, we are doing our best for every match to help us go for the gold medal.

“Our young players know our history, the history of the women who won the gold at the Olympics and they are motivated.”

As Oh helps bring through the new generation of Korean women players, she took time to reflect on the difference and difficulties these young players face compared to her time as a young player.

“At the time when I was playing all the players had very good individual skills, even those sitting on the bench,” said the former Hypo Niederosterreich player. “When I was a player the head coach didn’t need to give the orders because the players were very good individually but nowadays our players’ individual technical skills are lower.

“Now I am a head coach I let the players do it on court, but together as a team - I leave them to play, but together, as a team.

“It is the same steps as previously, when I was young, but back then we learnt a lot of skills from our schools but nowadays they can’t learn from high school the individual skills and that’s the problem, but we are all working hard to help our young players to improve their handball.”

As Oh continues to develop the youngest generation of Korean women on the world stage, she aims to use her experience to help players and coaches alike with her career as a globally-successful player and coach too, having most-recently guided the U18 generation to bronze at the 2016 IHF Women’s Youth World Championship in Bratislava, Slovakia.

“In Korea, normally the difference between one year [16/17-year-olds to 18-year-olds] is their skill and handball technique and it is a very big gap,” said the 45-year-old. “We want to continue motivating our young players who are playing in the second half, maybe they are not as good yet as the players in the first half, but we just help them play, calm down their minds and look at what they’re doing – we all work together to improve their skills.

“We want to give a chance to young players to play in the matches but if the opposition is strong we won’t do it like this - if we keep our best players in the match right until the end of the second half it will not help the young players and Jin Soon comes in too as coach – she is studying hard and learning – she loves handball right from her heart.”